TORONTO - Old habits die hard.
When the Lakers hosted Toronto 10 months ago, the Raptors held a 15-point first half lead before Kobe Bryant put on a show - as he has been known to do - and engineered a comeback victory, playing out in overtime.
Undermanned hours after consummating what turned out to be a season-altering trade, the Raptors returned to Los Angeles nine months later, stealing the game from the Lakers and Bryant, who returned from injury that evening.
Even if you believe they've played over their head during a 14-7 stretch since that fateful night in LA, there's no denying the Raptors are a different team than they were 42 days ago. Still and for whatever reason, there are certain hurdles they don't seem ready to conquer. The Lakers are one them.
"We played their game," coach Dwane Casey said after his team surrendered two big leads - a 19-point advantage in the second quarter and a 17-point cushion in the third - falling to the vulnerable Lakers, without the re-injured Bryant, 112-106 at the Air Canada Centre.
For the second time in the span of a week, Casey's club had squandered a golden opportunity against a fallen NBA superpower. Four days after extending their winless streak in Boston to 11 games, the Raptors failed to complete what would have been their first ever season series sweep of the Lakers.
Since the trade their offence has been much improved but Casey has and always will prioritize his team's effort on defence. The Raptors' coach would rather win ugly than lose pretty, his team had gotten quite good at it, but on Sunday they lost that identity.
"We didn't [play] a defensive game and that allows big runs," said Casey, his team giving up 112 points, the most they've surrendered since Dec. 23 against the Spurs. "That's not who we are. We've got to be a defence-first team not a three-point shooting team. We got caught up in their quick threes, which they're very good at and that's not who we are."
Assisting on 13 of their first 14 field goals, the Raptors shot 5-of-6 from three-point range in the opening quarter before going 4-of-24 the rest of the way. The Lakers connected on 12 of 22 attempts from long distance and 26 of 28 free throws as the home team got to the line just 11 times.
"They dictated the game a little bit more than we did [today]," said Kyle Lowry, who was spectacular again, scoring 21 points and recording nine of his team's season-high 30 assists. "They did a good job of playing the way they want to play and making us play that way also."
"We've got to understand that no matter how big the lead is no team is going to lay down," said DeMar DeRozan, who led the Raptors with 23 points. "They're going to play extremely hard to try to get back and we've got to understand that and withstand the runs they try to make."
DeRozan continued to struggle down the stretch, hoisting difficult, out of rhythm jumpers and letting frustration get the better of him after a questionable call late in the game. The Raptors' leading scorer made just two of his eight attempts in the fourth quarter, missing another key free throw, and is now shooting 4-of-21 from the field in the final period of his last three games.
On the season, DeRozan is shooting 33 per cent in the fourth, down from 45 per cent the rest of the game. The minutes he's logged - he's fifth in the NBA in minutes played - could be a factor late in games in addition to some poor decision making, but Casey pointed to the opposition keying in on Toronto's best player down the stretch.
"Teams are loading up on him, teams are making it rough for him to get those same shots," said the Raptors coach. "They're putting their best defender on him and he's working really hard to get the buckets he's getting. We've got to do a better job of helping screening him, getting him open, getting the ball to the weak side then coming back because he's expending a lot of energy to get his points."
Lakers' guard Nick Young scored 15 of his game-high 29 points in a back-and-forth final frame. There were eight lead changes in the fourth and 18 total on the afternoon.
For the first time all season, Casey was forced to improvise without two of his rotation players. Tyler Hansbrough missed his ninth straight game with a sprained left ankle and John Salmons was inactive nursing a back ailment. Without Salmons, Casey opted to play small. Julyan Stone logged 13 scoreless minutes - the most playing time he's seen since Dec. 6 - and Greivis Vasquez was used in the backcourt alongside Lowry. Vasquez had one of his better games as a Raptors - recording 11 points and eight assists - so too did Chuck Hayes, who played the bulk of the fourth quarter in place of starter Jonas Valanciunas.
"He needed to do a better job on (Pau) Gasol," Casey said of Valanciunas, who played just 14 minutes after picking up a pair of early fouls. "I thought Chuck and Amir (Johnson) did a better job on him and we want for the defensive matchup."
Although the Lakers successfully treaded water without Bryant prior to his return in the last meeting between these teams, they have come apart ever since. While the Raptors have vaulted up the Eastern Conference standings, LA had lost 16 of 21 games prior to Sunday's rematch.
Historically and regardless of the personnel, the Lakers have owned Toronto. Now, having lost two of three, the Raptors travel to Charlotte to face another, albeit more perplexing demon in the Bobcats.
The Raptors haven't won in Charlotte since Mar. 29, 2010, a span of six straight losses to a mostly dreadful Bobcats team.